Too often society stereotypes single people: They’re sad and lonely, searching for a partner. Not true, argues psychologist Bella DePaulo.
Dr. DePaulo has received national recognition for her work to change that perception through academic research, writings, a TED talk and book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After
She proudly states on her web page, “I’m single, always have been, always will be.” While she has been studying singles for decades, her work is more relevant than ever. In 2017, the U.S. Census reported that more than 45.2 percent of the American adult population is single. Over age 65, that’s 19.5 million people.
One reason for the single typecasting is the attention given to the “epidemic of loneliness.” However, marriage is no protection against loneliness, Dr. DePaulo says in her TED Talk. “The story we are told is that married people have the ‘one.’ The untold, more revealing story is that single people have the ‘ones.’”
And those “ones,” who single people share their lives with—friends and family—shield them from loneliness and make their lives just as fulfilling as those of married couples.
We caught up recently with Dr. DePaulo in Santa Barbara, where she works as an Academic Affiliate, Psychological & Brain Sciences, at University of California at Santa Barbara. In a phone call, we chatted about single people and friendship.
Q. You’ve written that the topic of friendship has a “renewed significance” both among people in general and researchers. Why is that?
A. In many ways friendship really captures what 21st century life is all about. Of course, in terms of demographics, fewer people are married than before and more people end up spending more years single; people are having fewer kids. More important, friendship reflects our values in contemporary life.
Q. In what ways does it mirror our values?
A. One example is equality. Friendship generally is not a hierarchical relationship. Ideally, it’s an equal relationship no matter what status you both have in your lives. Another sign of our times is that we value flexibility. Friendship has flexibility in that we don’t expect our friends to be available all the time. Ideally our friends are not possessive and demanding. Friendship also exemplifies the freedom we like to have in everything from choosing the shows we watch to what to eat for dinner. With friendship we choose to spend time with the people who matter to us. It’s about self-expression and our individual preferences and things we care about.
Q. You cited a study that noted that friends—not family, partners, children—seemed to put participants in the best mood, as indicated by measures of happiness, warmth and friendliness. What is it about the nature of friendship?
A. Enjoying one another’s company is the beating heart of friendship. It’s voluntary! If we don’t enjoy another person’s company we’re not going to be their friend. At the very heart of friendship is that this is someone you like spending time with.
Q. Yet with our busy lives we often struggle to make time for friends. Why do we sometimes feel socializing with friends is a luxury rather than a necessity?
A. Friends are still not given their due. We have this awful phrase ‘Oh, we’re just friends.’ Friendship is not seen as necessary, rather as an indulgence. We’re supposed to take care of our health and we are supposed to exercise, but friends are considered extras. And yet considering their benefits to us and how we intrinsically enjoy them, we shouldn’t think of friends that way.
Q. You write that single people do more than married people to maintain their friendships. Why is that?
A. Because single people have more interest in the ‘ones.’ Marriage is ‘You’re my everything’ and single life is about the ‘ones,’ not the one. Yes, you can have a best friend but more likely you have a circle of friends. We don’t just have relationships, we have ‘emotion ships.’ Certain friends for when we are sad, others when we are happy, and others when we are looking for validation. People who go to different people for different things are more satisfied with their lives than people who do this ‘You are my everything,’ making just one other person responsible for their happiness.
Q. What should we keep in mind about nurturing friendships with single people?
A. Don’t treat singles as placeholders until the ‘one’ comes along. If you have a partner don’t relegate singles to a lower social position. Too often singles get demoted to lunch while couples go out with friends for a weekend dinner. And don’t make ‘Are you seeing anyone?’ the first question you ask! Remember that singles have flexibility and freedom and they’re not checking with someone else before they commit to something. They create their own life. Married couples tend to be more insular. Research shows that singles excel at creating and nurturing personal relationships.
–Mary W. Quigley
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